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Analyzing the Political Ramifications of Li Keqiang’s Sudden Death

We believe that there is a very low probability of Xi Jinping having attempted to assassinate Li Keqiang, given their long-standing political alliance and the fact that as a political force, Li posed no threat to Xi.

◎ The following analysis was first published in the October 30, 2023 edition of our subscriber-only newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.

On Oct. 27, PRC state mouthpiece Xinhua reported the death of former premier Li Keqiang at the age of 68.

Xinhua wrote that Li “recently had a rest in Shanghai,” and suffered a “sudden heart attack” on Oct. 26. Li passed away at 00:10 a.m. Beijing time on Oct. 27 after “all rescue measures failed.”

Xinhua later published an official obituary for Li Keqiang about 10 hours after announcing his death. The obituary praised Li as an “excellent member of the Chinese Communist Party, a time-tested and loyal communist soldier and an outstanding proletarian revolutionist, statesman and leader of the Party and the state.”

Before hailing Li’s political “achievements” as premier, the obituary noted that they came about “under the strong leadership of Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core.” In describing Li’s role in the COVID-19 outbreak, the obituary said that he “assumed the post of head of the central leading group for COVID-19 response, and helped secure tremendously encouraging achievements in both epidemic response and economic and social development.”

The obituary noted that Li “continued to uphold the leadership of the Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core” after his retirement, “cared for advancing the cause of the Party and the country, and firmly upheld the Party’s efforts to improve conduct, build integrity, and combat corruption.”

In the conclusion, the obituary called on the Chinese people to “turn grief into strength by ralling more closely around Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core,” fully implement “Xi Jinping Thought” and “deeply understand” Xi’s political theories, and “strive in unity for fully building a strong country and achieving national rejuvenation through a Chinese path to modernization.”

  News of Li’s death leaked

Oct. 26
The Chinese language edition of Radio Free Asia reported that Li Keqiang was in good physical condition and enjoyed swimming, citing multiple people familiar with the matter. However, Li suffered a heart attack while swimming on the evening of Oct. 26, 2023 after checking into Dongjiao Hotel in Shanghai.

A person familiar with the matter said that someone posted on the internet at 5:54 p.m. Beijing time on Oct. 26 that Li Keqiang had passed away and an official announcement was inbound. The official announcement, however, said that Li had died at 00:10 a.m. Beijing time on Oct. 27.

  Internet reactions, censorship, and Western media reporting

Li Keqiang’s death became a hot topic of discussion on Western and Chinese social media outlets, and even topped Weibo’s trending list.

In discussing Li’s death, overseas Chinese language media and social media brought up the supposed “feud” between Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, or doubt about the official explanation for Li’s death. Some of the “differences” between Xi and Li that were raised include:

  • In 2020, Li mentioned that about 600 million people in China were living on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan, or remarks that ran counter to Xi’s claim of having eliminated “extreme poverty” and having results in achieving a “moderately prosperous society.”
  • During a press conference at the 2022 Two Sessions, Li said that under the current leadership, the international environment saw “profound and complex shifts” while the domestic environment saw a “multiplication of domestic contradictions and difficulties.” Li also said that the biggest challenge facing the Xi leadership was the COVID-19 pandemic and its serious impact on the economy. Overseas Chinese language media and social media commentators implied or observed that Li’s “blunt” remarks stood in contrast to Xi’s propaganda.
  • In March 2023, multiple videos of Li bidding farewell to the 800 or so staff at the State Council went viral. Li was filmed saying, “Heaven is looking at what humans are doing. The firmament has eyes.” (人在幹,天在看, 看來是蒼天有眼啊). Li’s remarks were interpreted as being a jab at Xi. However, Li’s full remarks at the event showed that he did not make any allusions to Xi. Li’s “Heaven is looking” comment also appeared to be a reference to the sunny weather on a wintry day; Li was trying to tell the staff that the good weather was a “reward” of sorts for their hard work.

Given the widespread belief that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang had differences or were even political rivals, many commentators speculated or implied that Xi had Li assassinated. Some observations or remarks that implied an assassination include:

  • Some netizens observed that Li appeared to be healthy in a video of him visiting the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang on Aug. 30, 2023.
  • A netizen wrote, “Even a fool knows what’s going on, dictators have no qualms [about assassinations].”
  • Another netizen wrote, “How can a 68-year-old national-level cadre who has annual health examinations suddenly die of a heart attack?”
  • Yet another netizen wrote, “People like [Li Keqiang] basically can live up to 80 or 90 years old with such good healthcare. Even one’s toes know what’s going on.”

Tsai I-Chen, a well-known Taiwanese cardiologist, wrote in a Facebook post that there are two common reasons for a sudden death from heart problems. The first is an obstruction of a coronary artery leading to a massive heart attack, and the second is severe arrhythmia leading to a heart attack. Tsai noted, however, that it is “not easy” for a national-level leader like Li Keqiang to die from either of the two reasons. Several Chinese language media outlets later cited Tsai’s Facebook post.

The CCP authorities censored comments about Li Keqiang’s death on Weibo and other Chinese social media. Information circulating on Western social media showed that universities in China had issued notices banning public mourning for Li.

In reporting the death of Li Keqiang, Western media mostly went with the narrative of Li as a “reformer” being “sidelined” by the authoritarian Xi Jinping. (for e.g., see here, here, and here)

  Other notable heart attack deaths that drew suspicion

White glove
Xu Ming, a businessman who was deeply involved in the case of former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, died of a heart attack in a prison in Wuhan City at the age of 44 on Dec. 4, 2015. Xu’s death sparked heated discussions and speculation online, including theories about how he was assassinated.

Second-generation red
Chen Xiaolu, a second-generation red (i.e. Party princeling), died of a heart attack at the age of 72 on Feb. 28, 2018. There was a lot of speculation at the time that Chen had been assassinated given that China Insurance Regulatory Commission had taken over Anbang Group just six days before his death and prior information circulating about Anbang’s “true” ownership. In January 2015, mainland media Southern Weekly reported that Chen was the “real boss” behind Wu Xiaohui’s Anbang, but Chen firmly denied the reporting. Chen, however, is publicly listed as one of Anbang Group’s nine directors.

Financial tycoon
Xie Zhikun, the founder of Zhongzhi Enterprise, died from a heart attack on Dec. 18, 2021 at the age of 61. After Xie’s death, there was constant speculation that he had been “silenced” (被賜死) as part of Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the financial sector.

  Our take

1. We previously debunked the idea of a “Xi-Li split” on several occasions (see here, here, here, and here). To briefly reiterate, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, a protégé of Hu Jintao’s, are allied politically against the Jiang Zemin faction. The Xi-Hu alliance came about after the Bo Xilai scandal and the Jiang faction’s coup attempt against Hu and Xi.

We also earlier noted that Xi and Li almost certainly have disagreements over policy, but there were no publicly observable signs that their political alliance had frayed. Throughout his time in office, Li was never in any position to challenge Xi given his lack of political power and “commoner” background in the CCP elite. Nor was there anything personal about Xi’s supposed “sidelining” of Li; the downgrading of the PRC premiership is in line with the Xi leadership’s continuous effort over a decade to centralize power in Xi Jinping and elevate the “core” (i.e. Xi) over the “collective leadership.” After his retirement, Li became negligible as a political force and posed no threat to Xi.

Xinhua’s official obituary for Li Keqiang indirectly affirms our analysis of factional dynamics in the CCP elite and the relationship between Xi and Li. Notably, the obituary wrote that Li “continued to uphold the leadership of the Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core” after his retirement and kept Party discipline, which suggests that Xi did not consider Li to be corrupt or disloyal.

We believe that many commentators quickly suspected that Xi had Li assassinated because the idea of a “Xi-Li split” has become the dominant narrative despite being an incorrect interpretation. Part of the reason why the assassination speculation seems “plausible” at first glance is because most CCP leaders have historically engaged in fierce struggles against their “second-in-command”:

  • Mao Zedong suppressed Zhou Enlai (even preventing doctors from informing Zhou about his bladder cancer and allowing him to receive treatment) and took actions that led to the deaths of Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao.
  • Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping removed Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang as Party head, and nearly removed Jiang Zemin when the latter initially did not embrace Deng’s political legacy of “reform and opening up.”
  • Jiang Zemin suppressed premier Zhu Rongji and interfered in the latter’s state-owned enterprise reforms and anti-corruption campaign. However, Zhu managed to retire without incident because many CCP elders were opposed to Jiang at the time.
  • Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were too busy uniting against the Jiang faction and coping with the constraints of the “collective leadership” system during Hu’s tenure. There are also no obvious public signs that Hu and Wen fought each other.

2. We currently see three possible explanations for Li Keqiang’s sudden death.

The official reason
Many are skeptical that Li died from the officially stated reason of a heart attack given the general longevity of retired cadres and the top-notch medical treatment afforded to senior CCP cadres of his stature. Also, it seems particularly damning that Li’s medical team was not able to save him or take sufficient preventive medical measures even after knowing that he was suffering from a heart disease of some sort.

That being said, it cannot be ruled out that Li indeed succumbed to a naturally occurring heart attack despite adhering to the best preventive measures and despite receiving the best treatment available. The official reaction to Li’s death also showed that Beijing was likely caught off guard; Xinhua first issued a terse statement that Li had died, and an official obituary was only published many hours later.

Xi sought to ‘silence’ Li
We believe that there is a very low probability of Xi Jinping having attempted to assassinate (including withholding life-saving treatment following an unintended heart attack) Li Keqiang, given their long-standing political alliance and the fact that as a political force, Li posed no threat to Xi. The best evidence that Li and other Hu Jintao associates have negligible political strength and cannot seriously threaten Xi’s “quan wei” (authority and prestige) is their being almost completely shuffled out of the top ranks of the Xi leadership at the 20th Party Congress.

Xi also has no political incentive to “silence” Li. Just the perception that Xi ordered Li’s assassination would do much to wreck his image at home and abroad. Foreigners would reinforce their impression of Xi as a ruthless, unbound dictator who has no qualms with removing perceived “reformers” and “moderates” who could perhaps check Xi’s desire for aggression against Taiwan. Meanwhile, CCP officials and the masses could believe more firmly that Xi is determined to follow in Mao Zedong’s footsteps with the assassination of his former number two; heightened paranoia of Xi and deep concerns about the direction he is taking the Party and the regime would worsen political and social instability in the PRC.

Of course, Xi could have contemplated “silencing” Li if the latter were engaging in acts of extreme disloyalty, including working actively with Xi’s enemies at home and abroad to oust Xi. However, Li would have had to be doing something that posed an immediate and dire threat to Xi, and a threat that could only be stopped with Li’s death, for Xi to have Li assassinated instead of simply investigated.

The “Xi assassinated Li” argument becomes even weaker in considering that the Xinhua obituary noted that Li’s political “achievements” were accomplished “under the strong leadership of Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core,” a positive assessment which indicates that Li did not pose a threat to Xi.

Xi’s enemies ‘silenced’ Li to get at Xi
We previously obtained information after this year’s Beidaihe meeting that Xi Jinping is “greatly concerned about the possibility of assassination attempts against him, and has placed heightened importance on ensuring his personal safety.”

It cannot be ruled out that “anti-Xi” forces decided to go after the retired Li Keqiang, who almost certainly received less protection as compared with Xi and other current members of the Xi leadership, after failed attempts to assassinate Xi himself. As we explained in the second scenario, “anti-Xi” forces have a lot to gain by allowing the perception that Xi could have “silenced” Li to circulate in the public discourse.

3. Regardless of what the actual reason for Li Keqiang’s sudden death might be, his passing will almost certainly trigger political turmoil in the CCP elite.

For one, Xi’s enemies will definitely take advantage of Li’s death to circulate all sorts of rumors, speculation, and disinformation to further tarnish Xi’s image and undermine his “quan wei.” The waging of an “information war” against Xi will heighten domestic and global paranoia about the Xi dictatorship, which will in turn exacerbate the CCP regime’s many internal and external crises.

Xi will very likely respond to the “information war” against him by stepping up anti-corruption purges and censorship. There are already signs that the Xi leadership is clamping down more strongly on “anti-Xi” messaging:

  • A reprint of the book, “Chongzhen: The Diligent Emperor of a Fallen Dynasty,” was recalled after it sparked negative comparisons online about Xi and his rule.
  • A State Council announcement of holiday arrangements for 2024 on Oct. 23 notably marked the start of the Lunar New Year holiday as the first day of the new year instead of the eve, as was the case for all years since 2007 with the exception of 2014. We believe that officials who “preferred left rather than right” and were looking to safeguard their respective careers decided not to have the eve of the Lunar New Year as the start of the holiday because they would be in danger of declaring that they are seeking Xi’s ouster; “Lunar New Year’s eve” (除夕) in Mandarin is a homonym for “removing Xi” (除習). This move, however, has backfired as many Chinese are unhappy that they do not have the eve of the Lunar New Year off.
  • A columnist for Dajiyuan (Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times) learned that the CCP authorities have a “special internet leading group” whose job is “safeguarding” Xi Jinping’s image. This leading group allegedly has an overseas unit that focuses on going after those who oppose or insult Xi, and has been known to use “fishing” techniques to gather “evidence.” The columnist added that the leading group is reportedly policing “anti-Xi” behavior more severely than “anti-CCP” behavior, and suspects that this could be due to factional struggle in the CCP because some “anti-Xi” forces are known to operate through overseas networks.

Meanwhile, escalated anti-corruption activities in response to rumors about the actual cause of Li Keqiang’s death, including major purges, will almost certainly lead to serious political destabilization. In a scenario where Xi suspects that his factional rivals were responsible for Li’s death, the Xi leadership could decide to move against remaining “big tigers” like Zeng Qinghong and other Jiang faction members sooner rather than later as Xi looks to shore up his personal safety.

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